Friday, February 3, 2023

Worth Mentioning - Where Life Is Darkness, Fire

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning. 

Swords, sorcery, and gunslinging cowboys.


A Yuletide celebration at the palace of King Arthur is disrupted by the arrival of the Green Knight, played by a ridiculous-looking Sean Connery in leafy green armor that leaves his belly exposed, face paint, bushy hair, and a crown of antlers on his head. The Green Knight offers King Arthur’s knights the chance to swing an axe at his neck, a blow that he will not try to block. The only catch is that the Green Knight will deliver the same blow to his attacker. Which doesn’t sound like much of a threat, since the Green Knight will be decapitated and unable to swing the axe if all goes right. Still, the knights don’t step up for the challenge. Instead, the only one who volunteers to lop the Green Knight’s head off is a young squire named Gawain – played by Miles O’Keeffe in a really goofy wig. Gawain manages to chop the Green Knight’s head off... but it turns out this is a supernatural being who can just pick his severed head up and put it back on his shoulders. Now it’s Gawain’s time to receive the swing of the axe. But since Gawain is so young, the Green Knight decides to hold off for a year. And if Gawain can solve a riddle in that time, his life will be spared.

The riddle goes like this: Where life is emptiness, gladness. / Where life is darkness, fire. / Where life is golden, sorrow. / Where life is lost, wisdom.

Gawain, knighted by King Arthur, sets out on a quest to solve the riddle and an odd adventure ensues. There are awkward attempts at humor, a battle between Gawain and the Black Knight, an encounter with the enchantress Morgan Le Fay (Emma Sutton), the acquisition of a ring that can turn its wearer invisible and teleport them, a character being turned into a frog, friars and sages, a city frozen in time, and an unbelievable romance that develops between Gawain and a young woman named Linet (Cyrielle Clair)... which leads to conflict with the armies of a Baron (John Rhys-Davies) and his son, who wants Linet for himself.

Stephen Weeks directed Sword of the Valiant from a screenplay he wrote with Philip M. Breen and Howard C. Pen, inspired by the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This was actually Weeks’ second time bringing the ideas presented in that poem to the screen, as eleven years earlier he had made a movie called Gawain and the Green Knight. If Sword of the Valiant was Weeks’ idea of perfecting the story on his second try, I really need to see how Gawain and the Green Knight turned out, because this movie is a bit of a clunky mess. None of the scenes work quite as well as they should, and Connery and O’Keeffe both look absurd in their roles. Connery made it clear with his comments and choices that he wasn’t always sure how to manage his career (there’s the famous example of him turning down The Matrix and Lord of the Rings because he didn’t understand them, then doing The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as an attempt to make up for those missteps), and the fact that he went along with playing the Green Knight in this movie – especially in that costume and that makeup – makes this feel like another time when he was making uncertain moves. The Green Knight is the best thing about the movie, but he still doesn’t come off that well.

Sword of the Valiant isn’t great, but I was entertained while watching it... and now I need to see Weeks’ other Green Knight movie.


Sam Peckinpah achieved legendary status by directing multiple classic films – but before he moved on to features, he spent a few years working in television, writing and/or directing episodes of shows like Have Gun – Will Travel, The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, and The Westerner (which he also created). After The Westerner ended, the show’s star Brian Keith signed on to star in the film The Deadly Companions, which was being produced by the brother of the film’s female lead, Maureen O’Hara. And the decision was made to let Keith’s former The Westerner collaborator Peckinpah make his feature directorial debut on The Deadly Companions. The production that resulted wasn’t ideal: the movie was made quickly and cheaply, Peckinpah lamented not being able to do a rewrite on the script provided by A.S. Fleischman (based on his own novel), O’Hara didn’t get along with the director, considering him to be strange and objectionable. But the movie got made, and Peckinpah earned his first big screen directing credit.

Set after the Civil War, the story centers on a man who’s called Yellowleg (Keith) because he still wears the pants from his Cavalry uniform with their yellow piping. During the war, Yellowleg was attacked and scalped by a Confederate soldier, and for five years he has been tracking his attacker across the country, seeking revenge. But when he catches up with Turkey (Chill Wills), he ends up saving the man’s life instead of getting his vengeance. Then he teams up with the unpleasant Turk – who dreams of setting up his own republic and using American Indian slaves as his personal army – and his also-unpleasant buddy Billy (Steve Cochran) to rob a bank. But before they can carry out the robbery, they cross paths with a gang of bandits... and in the ensuing shootout, Yellowleg – who has problems with his shooting arm – accidentally shoots and kills the young son of dance hall girl Kit (O’Hara). Kit is determined to bury her son in the same town where his father was buried, despite it being in the midst of dangerous territory that’s under control of the Apaches. So when she sets out through the desert to give her son his burial, Yellowleg decides to accompany her and keep her safe. Even though his associates Turk and Billy might be the biggest threat to her well-being. Thus the title of the movie.

The Deadly Companions isn’t anything all that special; it’s a serviceable Western, but the most notable thing about it is that it was Peckinpah’s feature debut. If it weren’t for the Peckinpah connection, the movie probably would have faded into obscurity by now... and really, not even the Peckinpah connection has saved it from being a lesser known Western. This was just a stepping stone of a film, but it’s worth a look because the interactions between Yellowleg and Kit are nice to watch, and Turkey and Billy are intriguing villains.

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